The Threefold Maternity of Mary

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Our Lady of the Cenacle, pray for us. Photo by Lawrence Lew O.P. (Source)

God seems very fond of doing things in a Trinitarian way. Everywhere we look, in nature, in our lives, in the life of the Church, it seems that we constantly come upon things that speak of threeness-in-oneness. So it is with God’s finest creation, Our Lady. Or rather, with her maternity. She has but one singular motherhood – her highest title, Theotokos, means “Mother of God.” Nothing can surpass this supreme gift. Nothing greater can be said of the Lord’s chosen. Nothing can reveal more about Our Lady’s life and mission. Yet we detect a certain triune quality to this one eminent dignity. We can speak of the threefold maternity of Mary.

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Our Lady of the Annunciation (Source)

First, we encounter Mary’s basic, physical motherhood of Jesus at the Annunciation. In welcoming the will of God into her life, she becomes the mother of the Most High, God Incarnate in Jesus Christ. The Holy Ghost, her divine spouse, conceives the Son in her womb. Her mystical partner and guardian in this parentage is St. Joseph. And in the joy of that maternity, we see Mary and Joseph as two models of chastity. Everything in those joyful mysteries becomes a parable of purity. The sanctity of the Holy Family consists in no small part in the innocence that pervades the hearts of each member. For that innocence is an opening to charity.

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Our Lady of Sorrows (Source)

Then, after the three and thirty years, Mary stands mournful beneath the cross. It was there that she became Mother of the Eucharistic Christ. For, offering up the sorrow of her own Immaculate Heart in union with her son’s High Priestly sacrifice, she bound herself to all the altars of the world as first adorer and co-redemptrix. Gone is St. Joseph; in his stead we find St. John, the figure of all priests under Christ. He would share the Eucharistic life with Mary forever after, entrusted with her care. Here, the great virtue uniting both of the hearts below the Cross is obedience. Our Lady obeys the paramount Providence of God in consenting to the sacrifice of her son, and St. John obeys the words of Our Lord in taking responsibility for the Sorrowful Mother.

But it is today’s feast of Our Lady of the Cenacle that points to the full and final extension of these two prior forms of motherhood. It falls on a most interesting point in the calendar, Saturday in the Octave of the Ascension. It is as if we are standing in the middle of a bridge between two shining cities, and can hear the mingled music of both. This liminal quality is important. For the feast we celebrate today has a double meaning. Two feasts of different but equal importance and dignity seem to unite in this celebration.

We have just left Christ in his Ascension. The Ascension is a memorial of Christ’s High Priesthood. It is like the prayers at the foot of the altar in the Cosmic Liturgy. Pentecost is a glorious theophany, the arrival of the Holy Ghost. We are thus mid-way between a mystery of veiling, and mystery of unveiling. And who do we turn to, but Mary, she who both hid and manifested God in her person?

When we celebrate Our Lady of the Cenacle, we commemorate her vigil of silent prayer with the Apostles in the upper room in those intense days following Our Lord’s Ascension. But we also remember the descent of the Holy Ghost into her own Immaculate Heart and into those of her companions. At the deepest level of reality, these constitute a single event in the History of Salvation. And they give us a sense of Mary’s deepening, widening maternity.

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Our Lady of the Cenacle (Source)

Wherever Mary communes with her divine spouse, the Holy Ghost, there is conceived the Body of Christ. First, that meant the physically Incarnate Word. Then it was the Eucharist extended throughout all time. And finally, as a consequence of these two forms of motherhood, we come to Mary’s maternity of the Church. This maternity is the crown of the other two, for it has never ended. The Holy Spirit came to that silver throne, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and has never left. In all the rest of Mary’s earthly life and eternal existence in beatitude, she has never been deprived of that intimate union begun in Pentecost. And so the Church remains. Mary’s union with the Holy Ghost is at the very heart of the Church’s being. That union brought forth Christ once. It brings forth the Eucharist at every Mass. And now, at Pentecost, it brings forth the Eucharistic community, Christ in His members.

Yet in what does this exalted maternity consist? Prayer, offered perfectly in the Immaculate Heart united to the Holy Ghost. Contemplation, adoration, reparation, intercession – in all its forms, prayer rises from Mary’s heart like huge storms of incense blowing across a desert plain, raining down graces to make it fertile. Yet one form of prayer does not. Mary cannot be contrite. She has never sinned. But we turn to her mystic partner in this maternity, and find a pillar of penance. Who else shares in the life of the Spirit in such a fiery way, but St. John the Baptist? Such is the heavenly reality expressed by the Deisis icon. It shows the Blessed Virgin Mary, paragon of prayer, and St. John the Baptist, archetype of penance, adoring Christ the Lord. Both Our Lady and St. John represent the twin realities of the Ecclesial life – prayer and penance – ordered to Christ – the Sacraments. We might thus speak of Mary’s motherhood of the Church as her Sophianic Maternity, for it is entirely drawn from and oriented to the Divine Wisdom.

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A typical deisis. (Source)

The feast of Our Lady of the Cenacle is thus a profoundly maternal day in the Church’s liturgy. Let us join her in prayer. Perhaps we shall taste something of that everlasting life granted to her in the Cenacle.

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Monstra Te Esse Matrem (Source)

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“God is Gone Up With a Merry Noise”

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Ascendit Deus in iubilatione, alleluia (Source)

God is Gone Up With a Merry Noise

Rick Yoder

Rear a hill in my heart, O God,
from which Thou might ascend.
But o! How swift I overshoot
and rush on to the end.
For first Thou must come hallow it
with that most kingly flood,
the pearls surpassing every price,
Thine own most precious blood.
And though I wander far, O Lord,
from Thy most holy fount,
yet never shall I lose the sight
of Thine eternal mount.
The shadows of the day grow long
and silence takes the land;
still do I hope in Thy sweet song
and Thy high priestly hand.
“The Lord ascends with gladsome noise
and hath taken the better part.”
So runs the word, so I rejoice,
for He rises there in my heart.

Monsieur Olier on the Ascension

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The Ascension fresco at Queen’s College Chapel, Oxford – perhaps my favorite chapel in the entire University. Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew OP. (Source)

One of the greatest luminaries of the French Church in the 17th century, that period known as the Grand Siècle, was Jean-Jacques Olier. Though barely read today, he exerted a profound influence upon the formation of the French School of Spirituality through his work in founding the Sulpician Order. He was a close associate of St. Vincent de Paul, who always regarded him as a saint.

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M. Olier, priez pour nous! (Source)

I have excerpted here his short chapter on the Ascension from his book, The Interior Life of the Most Holy Virgin. I must ask my readers to forgive me for not translating this edifying work, as I did not have the time. Those with French, however, will appreciate the depth of M. Olier’s insight.

***

Le sacrifice de Jésus-Christ étant offert pour l’Église, qui est visible, devait être visible lui-même dans toutes ses parties, afin de nous donner une certitude parfaite de notre réconciliation avec Dieu. Marie, dans le jour de la Purification, avait paru à l’offrande de la victime, en présentant elle-même, au nom de l’Église, Jésus-Christ notre hostie, et en le dévouant à l’immolation. Elle avait aussi été présente à la deuxième partie du sacrifice, à l’immolation réelle de Jésus-Christ sur la croix. La troisième, qui était la consommation ou le transport de la victime en Dieu, avait eu lieu dans le mystère de la Résurrection. Mais cette consommation s’était opérée d’une manière invisible; et la bonté de Dieu voulait que, pour notre consolation, cette partie du sacrifice devînt visible aussi bien que les deux autres, ou plutôt que Notre-Seigneur montât au ciel pour aller se perdre dans le sein de Dieu non-seulement à la vue de la très-sainte Vierge sa mère, mais encore sous les yeux de tous les apôtres par qui l’Église était représentée. C’est ce qu’avait figuré autrefois Élie montant au ciel dans un char de feu à la vue d’Élisée ; et ce prophète avait déclaré expressément à son disciple que, s’il le voyait monter, il aurait son double esprit. Don mystérieux, qui exprimait le fruit du sacrifice, c’est-à-dire l’esprit de mort et de résurrection ou de vie divine, que Jésus-Christ devait laisser à l’Église figurée par Élisée.

Après sa résurrection, il communiquait toutes les dispositions et tous les sentiments de son âme à sa bénite Mère. Il lui exprimait spécialement les désirs ardents qui le pressaient d’aller enfin se réunir à Dieu son Père, pour le louer et le glorifier dans le ciel. Marie, de son côté, éprouvait un véhément désir d’y accompagner son Fils, pour s’unir à ses louanges; et sans doute qu’elle eût terminé alors sa vie et l’eût suivi dans les cieux, s’il n’eût voulu se servir d’elle pour aider l’Église dans ses commencements.

L’oeuvre de cette divine Mère était encore incomplète. Après avoir donné, par Marie, naissance au chef, Dieu voulait procurer aussi, par elle, la formation de tout le corps. Il voulait la rendre mère de sa famille entière, de Jésus-Christ et de tous ses enfants d’adoption. Par zèle pour la gloire de Dieu et par charité pour nous, elle accepte avec joie la commission que Notre-Seigneur lui laisse de travailler à faire honorer son Père par les hommes, et de demeurer sur la terre jusqu’à ce que l’Église ait été bien affermie.

Le quarantième jour après la Résurrection étant donc venu, Jésus-Christ- se rend à Béthanie avec sa sainte Mère et ses apôtres; là élevant les mains et les bénissant, il se sépare d’eux, et en leur présence s’élève vers le ciel. Ils l’y suivirent des yeux, jusqu’à ce qu’enfin une nuée le dérobe à leur vue; et comme néanmoins ils tenaient toujours leurs regards fixés au ciel, deux anges vêtus de blanc leur apparurent et leur dirent : Pourquoi vous arrêtez-vous à regarder le ciel? Ce Jésus, qui a été attiré du milieu de vous dans le ciel, viendra de la même manière que vous l’avez vu monter au ciel. Ainsi Dieu voulut-il que l’acceptation solennelle qu’il faisait de notre hostie, eût pour témoins non-seulement tous les apôtres et la très-sainte Vierge, qui l’avait produite de sa propre substance, mais les anges eux-mêmes.

En montant dans les cieux, Jésus-Christ élève avec lui tous les saints patriarches et les autres justes qu’il avait retirés des limbes, et va les offrir à son Père, comme les premières dépouilles qu’il a ravies au démon par sa mort. Enfin, dérobé par la nuée à la vue de ses disciples, il laisse rejaillir la splendeur de sa gloire, qu’ils n’auraient pu soutenir et dont il avait retenu l’éclat dans ses diverses apparitions.

Comme les enfants des rois donnent des présents à leurs sujets, en faisant leur entrée dans leur royaume, Jésus-Christ, montant à la droite de son Père pour prendre possession de son trône, voulait envoyer à ses apôtres son esprit et ses dons, c’est-à-dire dilater son coeur en faisant entrer les hommes dans ses sentiments de religion envers Dieu son Père, et achever ainsi son ouvrage. Dans ce dessein et par son commandement, les disciples s’assemblèrent à Jérusalem avec la très-sainte Vierge et plusieurs saintes femmes; et là ils étaient en prière, louant, bénissant le nom de Dieu, et attendant la venue de l’Esprit-Saint. Marie était au milieu d’eux et présidait ce sacré concile, comme ayant, pour aviser à établir la gloire de Dieu dans le monde, une grâce qui excellait par-dessus celle de tous les apôtres. Quoique Jésus-Christ n’eût pas voulu qu’elle fût présente à la Cène, ni qu’elle offrît extérieurement le saint sacrifice, ni qu’elle fût prêtre selon l’ordre de Melchisédech, il voulait néanmoins que Marie, destinée à être la mère des vivants, se trouvât dans le Cénacle avec les apôtres, afin de verser la plénitude de son esprit en elle, comme dans le réservoir de la vie divine, et de la distribuer par elle à tous ses enfants, et aussi pour apprendre à l’Église que jamais elle ne serait renouvelée qu’en la société de sa divine Mère et en participant à son esprit.

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A rococo altar depicting the Ascension, Ottobeuren, Germany. (Source)

Our Lady of the Cenacle in Armenian Iconography

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Figure A. Our Lady of the Cenacle, pray for us. From the source: “MINIATURES – Erevan, Matenadaran, MS 8772, Gospel, Aght’amar, Vaspurakan, 1391, artist Dzerun, Pentecost. Photo: Dickran Kouymjian.” (Source)

Throughout the Latin Church, Saturday in the Ascension Octave is kept as the Feast of Our Lady of the Cenacle. On this holy day, we remember the Mother of God keeping vigil with the Apostles in the Upper Room, or “Cenacle.” The place is significant. Here, Christ gathered the Twelve on the night of his betrayal, Maundy Thursday. At that time, He instituted the priesthood and the Eucharist. Later, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit will descend upon the congregation and truly constitute the Church as such, confirming its sacramental essence and mission in the world of time.

Mary’s position in this unique place at this unique time is captured in the title, “Our Lady of the Cenacle.” But that name conceals a much deeper mystery. What, precisely, was she doing in the Cenacle? Why was she there? And does her presence, never mentioned in the Bible, nevertheless retain important meaning for us today?

As with any mystery unspoken in Scripture but passed on to us by the Tradition, we can approach it by many paths. One of the wonderful things about the Church is that, in her sacramentality, she recasts everything in the light of Christ and opens all things to a deeper meaning than we ordinarily encounter. So today, I’d like to consider Our Lady of the Cenacle through art. Specifically, iconography. Even more specifically, Armenian illuminated manuscripts.

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Figure B. A Greek-style Russian icon of 1497. Note the emptimess of the “Teacher’s Seat” at center. (Source)

In the Greek iconographic tradition, Pentecost is usually depicted with an empty seat in the center…the place of Christ the King and Teacher, who has ascended and sent the Holy Spirit in his stead. The icon for the feast of mid-Pentecost dovetails with this custom, as it depicts Jesus the youth instructing the teachers of the Law in an arrangement that approximates that of Pentecost proper. The Russian and Slavic iconographic tradition largely copies this model, with one notable exception. Many Russian iconographers include the Mother of God in what would ordinarily be the empty “Teacher’s Seat.” As one writer puts it, “Mary is therefore shown in the ‘teacher’s seat’ as the best example we have, and the person on earth who most resembled Jesus Christ (both physically, as His mother, and spiritually as His disciple).” Indeed.

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Figure C. A Russian-style icon with the Mother of God in the “Teacher’s Seat,” date unknown. (Source).

The Armenian iconographic tradition differs from both the Greek and Russian streams in important ways, not all of which we can get into here. For our purposes, it is enough for us to observe that the Armenians have a tendency to place the Mother of God at the center of the Pentecostal scene.

Examine, if you will, the illumination at the top of this essayFigure A.

Mary is, by far, the largest character. The Apostles crowd around her on both sides expectantly. Her hands are lifted in the orans position of prayer. She stands in a red mantle and a dark blue robe that matches the hue of the Holy Spirit alighting above her. Every one of the bird’s tongues of flame move through her nimbus to reach the Apostles, some of whom even raise their own hands as if to reach out and take hold of the mystical fire.

A similar placement and posture is written into the following icon:

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Figure D. Description from source: “This Armenian Gospel book was produced in 904 of the Armenian era (1455 CE) at the monastery of Gamałiēl in Xizan by the scribe Yohannēs Vardapet, son of Vardan and Dilšat, and was illuminated by the priest Xačʿatur.” (Source)

Mary is the central pillar of the icon. The Holy Spirit does not just descend, but rests upon her as He sends forth his tongues of flame. Here, too, their colors match. We can see that the Holy Spirit is customarily written in blue for this festal icon.

Blue is an interesting color, one with mystical associations. I won’t attempt a full symbolic analysis here, but it is worth contemplating the range of natural and supernatural meanings which Christianity has invested in this delicate shade. It suffices to say that blue is a sophianic color, calling to mind the wisdom and beauty of God (see the pertinent chapter in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, by the great Russian theologian Father Pavel Florensky). The iconographic tradition is of great help in this subject as well; besides gold, blue is the only other color allowed for the background of icons in the Greek and Slavic canons.

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Figure E. An Armenian Pentecost icon without Mary, but with a blue dove of the Spirit. (Source)

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Figure F. Pentecost icon of unconfirmed but probably Armenian origin. Same blue Spirit, roughly the same placement of the Theotokos. (Source).

It is also perhaps worthy of note that in Figure D, Mary doesn’t just match the hue of the Spirit. The colors she wears also match the architecture of the Cenacle. She is one with the Cenacle; the Cenacle is hers, and hers alone. The Cenacle is the Church, the Cenacle is every tabernacle in the world, the Cenacle is Heaven, the Cenacle is the New Jerusalem, the Cenacle is the Throne of God, the Cenacle is the Eschaton, the Cenacle is the final consummation of sophianic being brought about by Christ’s gloriously triumphant Incarnation, sacrifice, and Resurrection.

And in all these mystical dimensions of the Cenacle, Our Lady is Queen.

Mary is the woman who bears the Holy Spirit, the living icon of the Church. When we look at Mary, we are to think of the Spirit. The Mother of God always points us to her son, but also to the Holy Spirit, and through both, to the Father. She is never apart from the Holy Spirit. They abide together, and the Cenacle is where her truly Eucharistic and sophianic state of being is manifested for the awe-struck view of the whole Church. She is the consummation of what is accomplished by the Trinity in the Cenacle, the woman who fully cooperates in the salvation of the world, the Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix of All Graces. Indeed, do we not read the latter title in the first illumination above? Do we not see it in the slim orange lines of fire that move through her halo to the Apostles below? They only receive the Spirit as it passes through Mary.

Mary does nothing of her own effort. God does all in her, and she freely agrees to accept and work for God’s will. St. Paul can speak of “those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh” (Col. 1:24 DRA). Not so with Mary. In her, the cross’s victory is complete. In her, it has become the Tree of Life, “so that the birds of the air,” such as the blue bird of the icons, “come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Matt. 13:32 KJV).

On this feast day, let us remember the manifold graces that Our Lady showers upon us from her throne in the eternal Cenacle. Let us also take heart that, with so powerful an advocate at the heart of the Church, no controversies or troubles can ever overwhelm the Barque of Peter. Finally, let us pray to Our Lady of the Cenacle for the Benedictines of Silverstream on this, their patronal feast.

Four Luminous Days

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From an Icon of the Ascension. (Source)

This week, we are about to enter a truly remarkable liturgical sequence.

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Our Lady, Help of Christians. (Source)

Wednesday is Our Lady, Help of Christians, patroness of my parish here in South Carolina.

Thursday is the Ascension (sadly moved to Sunday in my province of Atlanta).

Friday is St. Philip Neri, and then on Saturday comes Our Lady of the Cenacle.

We could extend our reckoning to Sunday, but for now, I think it is appropriate for us to hesitate on the threshold of the Mystical Sabbath. Let us instead examine only these four days and their import.

We begin and end the progression with Mary. First, we see her in her relation to humanity. She is the help of Christians. Then, we see her in relation to God. She receives the Holy Spirit. Taking both feasts together, we see Our Lady participating in God-humanity; she becomes the perfect emblem of Divine Wisdom.

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St. Philip Neri, who received the Holy Spirit in the catacombs. (Source)

Studying Sophiology has made me appreciate Our Lady of the Cenacle even more. There is a deep connection, I think, between the manifestation of Divine Wisdom in the creation of the Cosmos, at the Baptism of Christ, and at the descent of the Spirit upon Our Lady at Pentecost. They are mutually illuminating events. I wonder if we can find that connection at the level of the propers for each liturgy, a project I may try to engage in before Saturday.

And how appropriate that St. Philip, who experienced his own Pentecost in the catacombs of St. Sebastian, should go forth as a herald for Our Lady of the Cenacle! It is a kind of liturgical proof of the hierarchical principle, that we are led by lower things to higher things. St. Philip received the Holy Spirit into his heart as a ball of fire in the catacombs under the city of Rome, once a place of persecution, the mythical “Babylon” of Revelation. He guides us to Our Lady as she waits and prays in the Cenacle, the Upper Room in Jerusalem where the sacraments of the Eucharist and Orders were instituted and where the Holy Spirit descended upon the Church in tongues of fire on Pentecost. What a picture of the historical Church in pilgrimage! From the darkness of the Roman catacombs to the heights of the upper room in Zion. We could read an eschatology out of these mystical days.

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Russian Icon of Pentecost, 18th century. The Slavs are unique among the Eastern Orthodox in placing Our Lady in the scene. (Source).

 

Nevertheless, this week’s procession is easy to overlook, since its central diamond, the Ascension, has been misplaced by so many bishops. Celebrating the feast on Sunday robs it of its truly Eucharistic meaning, for the Ascension’s traditional place on a Thursday meant that it could only be read through the texts of Maundy Thursday. Ascension Day is to Maundy Thursday as Pentecost is to Easter, the initiator of a new liturgical season and a reminder of the Mystical Priesthood of Christ. All of this is admirably explained by Dom Mark Daniel Kirby OSB in his podcasted homilies and in his blog, Vultus Christi.

The Eucharistic and Priestly meaning of the Ascension matters for the rest of the four-day sequence insofar as the Eucharist represents, sustains, and completes every instantiation of Sophianic being. The Sophianic character of the four days can only be discerned in the light of Christ’s face as He ascends into his cosmic priesthood on Thursday. This would be true even if St. Philip were not there to complete the set. This is, after all, a fairly uniqueE situation. Ever spry, St. Philip moves around the sacred calendar with the bustling rhythms of profane time. But in this auspicious year, so full of historical resonances and providential patterns, let us rejoice in the days that the Lord has made (Psalm 118).